Directed by: Yôjirô Takita
Written by: Kundô Koyama
Featuring: Masahiro Motoki, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Ryôko Hirosue, Kazuko Yoshiyuki, Kimiko Yo, Takashi Sasano
Daigo Kobayashi is a cellist who becomes unemployed when the orchestra he plays in is disbanded. This forces him, with his wife Mika, to move back to his smaller hometown from Tokyo so that they can save money whilst he tries to find a job. Daigo struggles to find work but eventually answers a job advertisement looking for someone to assist in departures, mistakenly thinking it is a travel agency job. He quickly finds out it is in fact a role known as ‘encoffinment’, preparing the bodies of the recently dead for cremation. Daigo is furtive about his new job, particularly with Mika, due to the cultural taboo and discrimination against those that deal with death.
Although ‘Departures’ was made to highlight a seemingly taboo Japanese topic it really is broader than that. Here in the so-called ‘west’ we tend to treat films about death and how the bodies of our nearest and dearest are treated in a much broader comedic style. Even in stories where an undertaker or the profession is not the topic, characters involved in that trade are usually treated with a dose of comedy, often dark and foreboding – Still Game anyone?
Departures treat the profession of ‘encoffinment’ with a more serious and dignified tone than many other films. It does not shy away from comedic moments, almost farcical but mixes these in with dignified professionalism and sentimentality, all seamless in the approach. The themes of reconciliation and redemption are often never far from death and here is the underlying theme to at least Diago’s tale as he struggles with the guilt of how he failed to fully look after his mother and his disdain for his estranged father, who he had not seen since he was six years of age.
Dealing with the death of many loved ones through the running time it would have been easy to become overly sentimental and maudlin but Kundô Koyama’s screenplay whips us through laughter, a beautiful scene of relatives smothering their deceased relative in lipstick from kisses to violence and anger, a girl who has died in a motorcycle accident and acceptance and love, his son is buried as he lived his life as a girl.
Equally as interesting is Diago’s conflict with his new role, dealing with the dead, he does not want to tell anyone, he is almost ashamed of what he does, but eventually, the dignity he can give to those in their final send-off, breaks down his resistance.
It would not be a Japanese film without the ‘double take’ comedic moment and histrionic anger to show passionate emotion, both in my view just a tad too much but they certainly do not distract from the overall story.
Ryôko Hirosue as Diago’s loyal wife is a less satisfactory role, at times simpering and there to highlight to the audience the cultural view on working with the dead and death in general. Pregnant and admiring the cherry blossoms director Koyama could not be more on the nose with death and rebirth and the never-ending circle of life in one scene, perhaps not the subtlest you will ever see. Initially repulsed to the point of even leaving her husband by this trade all we the audience want her to see is the professional dignity that Daigo gives those that have died and Takita does not leave us disappointed, in a moving final preparation in the final scenes.
Departures is not a ‘deep’ film but because of the topic, it does not have to be. A profession that people around the world take part in that the rest of us prefer not to think about, and in this case actively ignore or even despise, is treated with emotional dignity the same as Masahiro Motoki’s lead character does.
The acting is on a par with any I have seen in Japanese films, and although the running time is ten minutes over two hours Departures does not outlive its welcome. You truly would have to have a heart of stone to not shed a tear at some time during the viewing and even though you are right there amongst death, Departures leaves you feeling uplifted and positive.
Certainly, a film I would recommend about something many prefer not to watch.